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What is CDC's Role in Emergencies?

What are public health threats?

  • Biological threats can be natural, accidental, or deliberate. They include viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungi or their toxins that can cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants. They are spread through air, water, or food. Examples of biological threats include flu viruses or bacteria that contaminate foods.
  • Natural disasters include heat waves, snow or ice storms, earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods.
  • Chemical and radiological materials released accidentally or intentionally could create large-scale public health emergencies, especially in densely populated areas.
  • Explosions by far the most common cause of casualties associated with terrorism – can result in large numbers of casualties with complex injuries not commonly seen after natural disasters such as floods or hurricanes.
HurricaneWhether caused by natural, accidental, or intentional means, public health threats are always present. Being prepared to prevent, respond to, and recover rapidly from these events can save lives and protect the public’s health security.

Because of its unique abilities to respond to infectious, occupational, or environmental outbreaks and events, CDC plays a pivotal role in ensuring that state and local public health systems are prepared to respond to all types of health threats. CDC's work in preparedness builds upon decades of science developed to promote the public's health.

CDC's role in public health emergencies

  • Emergency response begins at the local level. CDC prepares local and state public health departments by providing funding and technical assistance to strengthen their abilities to respond to all types of emergencies and build more resilient communities.
  • When local and state resources become overwhelmed, CDC responds and supports national, state, and local partners to save lives and reduce suffering. This includes providing scientific and logistic expertise, and deploying personnel and critical medical assets to the site of an emergency.
  • CDC also helps these partners recover and restore public health functions after the initial response.

CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response leads the agency's preparedness and response activities by providing strategic direction, support, and coordination for activities across CDC as well as with local, state, tribal, territorial, national, and international public health partners.

Other CDC organizations and programs also make significant contributions to emergency preparedness and response.

Working every day to prepare

Lab tech holding samples

Emergency response relies on a strong base of preparedness efforts that often go unnoticed. Many preparedness activities occur on a daily basis, such as monitoring for real or potential health security threats and exercising plans for emergency responses.

These and other types of activities can be scaled up to respond to emergency scenarios such as pandemic influenza, foodborne diseases, or bioterrorism. Strengthening the preparedness base at federal, state, and local health departments helps support the overall public health system, the health care system, and national security.

All sectors contribute to a coordinated approach

National emergency preparedness requires a coordinated effort involving every level of government as well as the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and individual citizens. CDC's work in preparedness and response supports the Department of Homeland Security, which has overall authority for emergency response activities as laid out in the National Response Framework.

Public health and medical preparedness: Essential for national health security

Protecting our health security involves both public health and medical preparedness.

Public health preparedness is the ability of the public health system, community, and individuals to prevent, protect against, quickly respond to, and recover from health emergencies, particularly those in which scale, timing, or unpredictability threatens to overwhelm routine capabilities. Activities focus on protecting and improving the overall health of communities and include

  • Monitoring and investigating health threats (surveillance and disease detection)
  • Communicating critical information with public health officials at local, state, and federal levels
  • Building and operating laboratories with capabilities to identify disease agents, toxins, and other health threats
  • Operating and maintaining the Strategic National Stockpile of critical medical assets for rapid deployment to states
  • Developing, practicing, and improving emergency response plans at state and local public health departments to ensure rapid and effective responses to real health security threats

Medical preparedness is the ability of the health care system to prevent, protect against, quickly respond to, and recover from health emergencies, particularly those whose scale, timing, or unpredictability threatens to overwhelm routine capabilities. Activities focus on protecting and improving the health of individuals. Medical preparedness generally is the responsibility of agencies other than CDC.

During an emergency, the public health system supports the health care system by helping to minimize illness and injuries when emergencies unfold, thus reducing the burden on the health care system.

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